NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver Santino Ferrucci has just one hope for his debut Wednesday night in the prestigious Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Okla. He does not want to start on the pole for his first heat race.
“I want to start in the back, learn how to pass people and race my way up,” he told INDYCAR.com on Tuesday. “I won’t be too nervous if I can do it that way.”
Ferrucci spent Monday night watching the opening round of racing at Tulsa Expo Raceway, and he has asked plenty of questions of Chili Bowl veterans Justin Allgaier and Chase Briscoe, among other drivers. But there is no substitute for on-track experience, and Ferrucci has only turned five practice laps around the quarter-mile indoor dirt track.
The Chili Bowl, which is being held this week for the 34th time, is one of the great wonders of American motorsports. Some 360 drivers from 40 states and six countries are battling for positioning in Saturday’s final round. Each driver has been assigned one night of heat racing.
Competing from the INDYCAR ranks are Ferrucci, Conor Daly and James Davison, and only Daly has driven in the Chili Bowl before – he reached the 11th of 15 Saturday rounds last year. Daly and Davison are scheduled for heat races Friday night.
Ferrucci said he and Davison have been consuming everything they can so far. Keep in mind they have only experienced true short-track racing through one day of testing a 410 sprint car last month at Canyon Speedway, a dirt track in Peoria, Ariz.
“It’s always wild driving into the corner flat and then lifting as opposed to using the brake,” Ferrucci said. “This car (at this track) actually felt just as quick as the 410, and a lot of that is due to the track prep by (Tony Stewart and his staff).”
Ferrucci described how his car “moved around a lot” and required significant overcorrecting during his five practice laps. While he has watched a couple of Chili Bowl races on video, he knows it will be a different being in the car when the green flag waves. At a minimum, this will be nothing like he has experienced in his racing career.
“It doesn’t really look like there are 360 cars here until you walk around and start counting them,” Ferrucci said. “It’s an incredible field, but everyone has been really helpful.”
Christopher Bell has won the past three Chili Bowls, and this field includes past champions Rico Abreu (2015-16), Kevin Swindell (2010-13), Sammy Swindell (1989, ’92, ’96, ’98, ’09), Damion Gardner (2008), Tim McCreadie (2006) and Cory Kruseman (2000, ’04).
NASCAR Cup drivers Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Alex Bowman are also competing. Cannon McIntosh, 17, was Monday night's overall winner.
Ferrucci, Daly and Davison are driving with help from David Byrd, whose inspiration for supporting talented open-wheel drivers comes from his father, Jonathan, who helped Rich Vogler and Stan Fox compete years ago in the Indianapolis 500. Vogler won the inaugural Chili Bowl in 1987. David Byrd helped get Bryan Clauson to the 500 in 2015 and ’16, and he will again support Davison in this year's 500 along with a shot at NASCAR's Daytona 500. Davison is a five-time Indy starter.
Ferrucci said he has cautioned everyone, including himself, to manage expectations. This is, after all, his maiden attempt at midget race.
“I don’t really care how I do; I came here to have fun, stay clean and have a blast,” Ferrucci said. “I want to come back and do it again next year.”
Weeknight action at the Chili Bowl can be viewed online by pay-per-view at racingboys.com. Saturday’s final feature races will air on the MAVTV Motorsports Network. Results can be found at chilibowl.com.